Before COVID-19, when we heard the word "virus," most of us thought about our computers. Cyber-security terminology has borrowed from the biological world because of the similar ways that viruses spread and can be combated. Both rely on hosts for transmission and can be prevented by immunity, which for a computer comes in the form of antivirus software rather than the injection of a vaccine. Perhaps the most important similarity is that computer viruses also spread surreptitiously, often causing serious damage before being detected. In other words, both are pretty scary.

Although the term computer virus was coined already in the 1980s, it was popularized the following decade by a swelling genre of cyber movies (remember Hackers?) as well as the first real-life public malware scare in 1992 when the Michelangelo virus — named after the famous painter with the same March 6 birthday — spread to some 5 million computers, mainly through floppy disks.

Of course, talking about computer viruses when a real-life pandemic is still wreaking havoc across the world may raise eyebrows. Yet, one clear side effect of the current health crisis is that more and more of our lives, particularly working lives, are moving online. The cyber-security risks, for example, in the proliferation of Zoom and other video conferences puts everything from our images to our passwords at risk of exploitation.

As our economy becomes more digitized, faceless and harder to understand, the stakes are bound to keep rising. Yet, advances in computing could help us learn lessons to fight both health and cyber threats, as pointed out in a recent article in Welcome to the Jungle about those combating viruses in our computers and our bodies: "With both disciplines plotting similar paths toward data-driven threat response, there is surely considerable benefit for both in gaining a greater understanding of each other's strategies, successes, and challenges."

Nobody right now expects either virtual or biological viruses to be eradicated any time soon, and we've learned that our fate remains largely in our own hands — which you should wash regularly, and use to change your passwords at least once a month.


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